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Coal-burning Power Plants of the Colorado River Basin
October 23, 2008
GEOLOGY, HYDROLOGY & CONSUMPTION
Most of the coal-fired generation stations in the Colorado River basin are on the province of the Colorado Plateau (map), which is a high elevation desert of thick sedimentary rock layers that host abundant hydrocarbon deposits.
The water for steam and cooling is supplied, in most cases, by the Colorado River and its many tributaries; groundwater is the other source. The Colorado Plateau is located in eastern Utah, western Colorado, northwest New Mexico, and northern Arizona.
A bit beyond the Colorado Plateau are the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Rocky Mountain province, which includes southwest Wyoming, northeast Utah, and central Colorado. The major tributaries of the Colorado River are the Green and San Juan rivers, which all join as one in southeastern Utah (map). The Colorado River ends in Mexico at the Gulf of California.
On the eastern side of the Great Divide, Wyoming leads the nation in coal mining (37%). In fact, 50 trains (39 in 2001) now leave the Powder River Basin every day and 36 of these trains can push/pull railroad cars that total two miles in length. The mines of Wyoming (Mid-America Energy), the railroads (BNSF), and many of the coal plants (Rocky Mountain Power and PacifiCorp) that burn this coal are corporate investments of Hathaway Berkshire. The CEO of this company is Warren Buffett.
The Colorado River basin is predominately arid (85%) and evaporation rates are usually six or seven times greater than the total annual rainfall. The water used to produce steam is completely consumed through evaporative cooling, so fortunately there are no return flows to alter the temperature of the river. However, this water consumption does reduce instream flows, which are designated by the federal government as critical habitat for threatened and endangered fish species.
The power is exported by long transmission lines to metropolitan cities surrounding the Colorado Plateau, such as Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The distances are staggering, as are the cumulative losses of power along the way. Transmission towers and long lines of cable stretch across a superlative landscape that is essentially pristine. So the rural populations of the Colorado Plateau receive the brunt of chemical and sight pollution as the consequence of this industry. Contrarily, power plants near urban areas, in consideration of the people who live there, burn cleaner fossil fuels such as natural gas. This is a double standard and discriminatory toward rural communities.
Power consumption in the southwestern region of the United States is off the charts compared to the rest of the nation. For example, the power is largely used to pump scarce water supplies uphill to arid and semi-arid metropolises such as Phoenix and Los Angeles. Agriculture here is almost entirely dependent on energy to lift water either from the river or from deep aquifers. Not to mention that all these desert cities have extreme summer and winter outdoor temperatures, and utilize consumptive air conditioning units to control the climate of their interior spaces, which in many cases are unreasonably spacious. In fact, many people maintain two homes (or more) and chase preferable climate by season or elevation.
THE OTHER HARD ROCK HYDROCARBON
Coal is king on the Colorado Plateau for reasons of cost-effective extraction, but the plateau also contains more oil shale and tar sands (read report) than Saudi Arabia has liquid petroleum. In fact, this domestic deposit of oil shale and tar sands is the largest in the world and it remains--so far--untapped and for reasons of water scarcity (report).
I must digress from coal briefly to inform readers that the oil companies are poised to exploit these huge deposits of hard rock oil, which would likely impact the drinking water quality of the Colorado River basin and effectively increase global warming impacts worldwide.
Oil shale is an organic rich mud stone that contains kerogen which, when heated, releases crude oil and natural gas. Oil companies require tremendous amounts of energy and natural resources to convert that kerogen into useable products. If oil shale, or tar sands, are extracted by conventional mining methods, the amount of waste rock is considerable, as is the case with mountain top (or high plateau) removal for accessing coal deposits.
The preferred extraction method for oil shale is to heat the rock in its original position (in-situ). This requires drill holes to stop the migration of oil with a curtain of frozen water, drills holes to heat the oil shale, and drills holes to extract the oil and gas. The road and platform construction in arid lands for such an extraction method would devastate this watershed that supports 30 million people (Mexico included) and endangered species.
Surplus water in the Colorado River basin simply does not exist anymore. In fact, the Colorado River Basin is already past peak water according to many climate scientists. The Scripps Institute, for example, predicts that hydropower production at Hoover and Glen Canyon dams has a 50% chance of ceasing in the 2020s (100% in the 2030s), because the reservoirs will empty due to over-consumption and, as a consequence of climate change, diminished streamflow. This is a considerable impact when one considers that the Colorado River, which is only the 25th largest river in the United States, has the two largest man-made reservoirs in the nation--Lakes Mead and Powell.
Contrary to popular perceptions, the production of hydropower from dams on the Colorado River dams is actually quite insignificant. For example, the coal-burning Navajo Generating Station near Lake Powell will produce much more electricity annually than all the hydropower facilities on the Colorado River combined. Hydropower operations cannot run at maximum capacity on an annual basis. If they were operated in this manner, they would effectively drain the reservoirs in no time and hydropower production would cease altogether.
Much of the coal mining and power plant operations occur on, or next to, tribal lands, which include the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute, Paiute and Apache. The mines are owned by national and international corporations who are far-removed from the harm and displacement they bring to this landscape and its people. Though these coal-related facilities provide jobs to indigenous people, the situation has otherwise demoralized the traditional culture of its native people.
There are many indigenous environmental groups on the Colorado Plateau that are opposed to coal mining and coal burning such as Diné Care, Black Mesa Coalition and Black Mesa Trust. The debates about resource extraction on tribal lands, however, is similar to the debates of the dominant society. For example, in 2005 the Navajo Nation banned all uranium mining and milling on their lands forever, but in 2009 the Navajo and Hopi tribal governments banned mainstream environmentalist groups from engaging in tribal affairs over coal extraction and coal-fired power plants, and much to the chagrin of the indigenous environmental groups (and here).
The Colorado Plateau has one of the highest concentrations of preserved natural and cultural features in the world. The high pollution, the altered water, and the poor visibility all affect the enjoyment of our public lands, national parks and wilderness areas, which are all federally protected ecosystems for the entire world to enjoy. For example, there are times when haze prevents one from viewing the other side of the Grand Canyon.
Click here to read air quality report by National Parks Conservation Association.
Health advisories throughout the Colorado River basin suggest that pregnant women not consume fish taken from the Colorado River and its tributaries for reasons of mercury contamination. A US Geological Survey study released in September of this year reported that 40% of smallmouth bass and 1/3 of largemouth bass (not native) sampled in the Colorado River had male organs with partially developed female organs inside (intersexed).
A LIST OF COAL-FIRED POWER PLANTS IN THE COLORADO RIVER BASIN
Map of Colorado River Basin
Navajo Generating Station (2,250 Megawatts (MW)) was built between 1969 and 1976. Three units are located near Page, Arizona next to Lake Powell, which is the second largest man-made reservoir in the United States when full (now half-full). The facility is located on the Navajo Reservation and the owners are Salt River Project, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Arizona Public Service, Nevada Power Company, and Tucson Electric Power Company.
2009 - NGS white paper. Central Arizona Project.
Four Corners Power Plant (2,040 MW) was constructed from 1962 to 1970. There are five units near Farmington, New Mexico, and next to the San Juan River. This coal-fired power plant is located on the Navajo Indian Reservation. The facility is owned jointly by Arizona Public Service Company, the Southern California Edison Company, the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, the Public Service Company of New Mexico, the El Paso Electric Company, and the Tucson Electric Power Company.
San Juan Generating Station (1,800 MW) is a four unit facility which began construction in 1973 and is located near Farmington, New Mexico along the San Juan River. The major owner is Public Service Company of New Mexico. Environmental controls include a limestone forced-oxidation system for removing sulfur dioxide and electrostatic precipitators for removing fly ash. Legal action was required to improve air quality at SJGS.
Mohave Generating Station (1,580 MW) has two units with construction beginning is in 1967. The power plant is not operational at the moment due to a decision by the owners to not install upgrades to meet environmental compliance laws, and as a result of litigation from environmental groups. The operator of the plant is Southern California Edison and the facility is located next to the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nevada. The other owners are Salt River Project, Nevada Power and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Nucla Station (100 MW) has one unit next to the San Miquel River near Nucla, Colorado and built from 1957 to 1959. The facility was the world's first utility-scale power plant to utilize (1985 - 1987) atmospheric circulating fluidized-bed combustion. Total project cost was $112 million and the owner is Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
The National Park Service has raised serious concerns about the impact it would have at nearby Great Basin National Park. Nevada has the second strongest renewable energy standards in the country, but allowing the construction of additional coal plants would lead Nevada away from reaching its renewable resource potential.
Update: as of 2/9/09, this proposed project has been postponed.
Desert Rock (1,500 MW) - Desert Rock Energy Company, a Sithe Global Power subsidiary, has proposed to build a 1,500 MW supercritical coal plant along the San Juan River near Farmington New, Mexico. Diné Power Authority, a Navajo Nation enterprise established to develop natural resources on Navajo lands, has entered into a project agreement with Desert Rock Energy. Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE) and the San Juan Citizens Alliance are collaborating to stop the development of the Desert Rock plant. The power generated by the plant would not go to the Navajo people, but rather into Las Vegas and Arizona. The two organizations are working to educate the community and raise grassroots support both on and off the Navajo Reservation to stop the plant.
America's Biggest Polluters: Carbon Dioxide Emmissions from Power Plants in 2007. Arizona Environment.
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